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This week, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee introduced a broad package of energy legislation including the Chairman’s bill, S. 883, the American Mineral Security Act of 2015. While serving a number of important purposes, the bill also creates a worrisome permitting structure that could undermine community rights.

What is Critical?

The National Academy of Sciences and the United States Geological Survey have thought really hard about this question. Their suggestion: numbers 57-71 on the periodic table (known as the lanthanide series) as well as a handful of others that share some important chemical properites like luminescence and conductivity.

Not copper or uranium.

We should also research potential alternatives and programs that can increase recycling rates. Performing evaluations of our workforce needs, studying potential chokes in the supply chain, and assessing our existing mineral assets all seem like good ideas.

Toward Mineral Independence

This nation holds an abundant resource of mineral wealth, even in deposits of so-called rare earth metals – a misnomer that refers to metals needed for everything from fancy electronic devices to renewable energy generation and military drones. Yet despite our abundance, most of the strategic and critical minerals we need come from other countries.

So, why not dig for them here? The reason: Market forces. Where mining companies can get minerals for a dollar and sell them for two, that’s where they want to dig. Besides, even if we mined more of these minerals domestically, we still end up sending them to China for manufacturing.

A Nation Built for Mining

Not only is the United States rich in mineral endowment, we also are one of the world’s most favorable investment destinations for mining. Every year the Fraser Institute releases their annual survey asking mining companies where they want to risk spending their money. Of the hundred or so jurisdictions listed, the United States’ major mining states often rank in the top ten. In fact, our democratic government, functional judiciary, and regulatory environment make conditions quite favorable for mining.

The 1872 Mining law gives away the public’s minerals for free, removes agency discretion to deny a mine, and regards mining as the highest and best use of our lands. Not to mention loopholes in the Clean Water Act that allow our rivers, lakes, and streams to become toxic mine waste dumps. So, if mining companies decide to look elsewhere to harvest strategic and critical minerals, it’s not a problem with our laws, it’s just the price isn’t right, yet.

What About the People?

Our worry about S.883 is the focus on reducing community input in permitting decisions. Section 104 of the bill outlines harshly strict measures by which permitting agencies must reduce the amount of time it takes for a mining applicant to receive a permit. Unfortunately, this focus is misguided.

On average, the Bureau of Land Management takes around 3 or so years to permit a large mine. Longer times sometimes occur because the permit applicant chooses to wait until prices rise or makes other changes to their plan of operations. We should not sacrifice the will of the people for better government efficiency. Our mining policy should focus on genuine solutions rather than misplaced problems.